Ancient Cosmetics is a Black family owned skin care company inspired by their disconnect with industry companies selling toxic chemicals in their community. They use natural recipes and a strong social media presence to help grow their business.
Women in ancient Egypt were big on cleanliness and appearance as it had religious significance. Many tombs reveal beauty canisters and makeup kits, including a red ochre-and-vegetable mix used to blush the cheeks (as seen on Queen Nefertari’s portrait in c. 1255 BCE).
In ancient Egypt, beauty was a big deal. Women and men alike adhered to a strict personal hygiene regimen, in part because of the harsh Egyptian climate. They brushed their teeth with the aid of brushes made from the salvadora persica tree, and they applied ointments and oils to soften their dry skin and protect themselves from desert sunburns.
Cosmetics were not only an important part of daily life, but they were also believed to enhance one’s spiritual health. Little pots of ointments were often buried with the dead, so that they could use them in the afterlife.
Although archaeological finds of cosmetics can be dated as far back as 3100BC (ceremonial palettes used for grinding and mixing), it is in 1500BC that they become more commonplace. During this period, many of the basic ingredients we know today were already in use in ancient Egypt.
Among the most important were the mineral-based pigments that were used to color skin, hair and eyes. The most famous were kohl and malachite. Both were extracted from mineral ores and mixed with water and fatty oils. These eyeliner and makeup products were not only designed to make people look more beautiful, but they also protected their eyes from disease and helped them see in the dark.
Other ancient Egyptian beautifying techniques included the use of henna to dye fingernails and hair. Egyptians also believed that certain scents were godly, so they would use fragrant oils and creams scented with flowers like lilies and sandalwood.
Nails were an important symbol of status and a sign of cleanliness, so they were kept long and painted with henna. The upper classes even had their own manicurists to maintain the appearance of their nails.
As with other ancient cultures, the wealthy were able to afford to hire cosmetics professionals. They possessed knowledge that was passed down through generations, and they were also able to purchase the highest quality ingredients. Those without the financial resources to hire an expert could still achieve a more beautiful look by following simple homemade recipes.
In the eyes of the ancient Romans, a woman’s physical appearance was an expression of her inner beauty and character. Women were expected to maintain a clean, attractive, healthy look at all times. They dyed their hair, reduced winkles and used cosmetics to enhance the features that they believed characterized beauty: white skin, a hint of pink on the cheeks, a well-groomed brow and full lips, glossy black eyelashes and an alluring color in their earlobes.
Like their Greek counterparts, the Romans were not only obsessed with their looks but also believed that their beauty treatments could have medicinal benefits. They used lotions and unguents made from oils, fats, crocodile dung and even the bones of birds to moisturize their skin, reduce wrinkles, tame frizzy hair and soothe the eyes. Some of these products had more ambitious effects like eye paints that could make the wearer invisible or pastes that could reverse baldness and greying hair.
Although a number of Roman writers criticized the excessive use of makeup, especially by prostitutes and rich women, some did not object to the practice as long as it was harmless. Pliny and Ovid both included details of some cosmetic ingredients in their writings. Some of the more outlandish ones, such as asses milk and antimony, were never really embraced by the Romans but others like chalk, orris root, tin oxide and the dregs of wine were more widely used.
Luckily, some of the pots and bottles that the Romans kept their make-up in have survived archaeologically. These can be analyzed using modern non-invasive techniques to discover what the original formulation was. In one example, the contents of a pot discovered in London revealed that it contained a mixture of animal fat, starch and tin which was found to have a very similar consistency to that of modern creams. The contents of another pot unearthed in Rome were identified as being a combination of red chalk, flower petals and cinnabar, a bright-red form of mercury. This ingredient was also found in Roman lipsticks, blushes and eyeliners.
The ancient Greeks were lovers of physical beauty and they constantly sought new ways to improve their appearance. Their pursuit of beauty was not just about vanity, but it was also a way to show off their wealth and status. This was especially true of women. They used a variety of cosmetics including rouge for the cheeks and whitener to make their skin paler. They also used eyeliner and black mascara and made use of a wide range of facial powders.
Many of the ancient cosmetics were actually quite toxic for the skin. The white lead that was used to lighten the skin had terrible health effects in the long run. However, this did not stop the ancient Greeks from trying to look as pale and beautiful as possible.
Like the Egyptians, the ancient Greeks were obsessed with looking their best and they had an extensive range of cosmetics to help them achieve their goals. They even had a word for it; “kosmetikos” which means an awareness of harmony, order and tranquility. Some of the most popular cosmetics among the ancient Greeks included olive oil and honey for softer and brighter skin. In fact, they also may have invented the concept of face masks. They would grind up fresh berries and then mix them with milk or other liquids for a face mask that softened the skin.
Another common product was a kind of red dye called enchousa, which was obtained from the roots of the alkanna tinctoria plant. It was used as a face paint to make the cheeks look rosier. Interestingly enough, some of the earliest surviving makeup was found in the tombs of the ancient Greeks and these included lipstick which was basically a mixture of olive oil with beeswax and a red dye made from crushed berries or flowers.
One of the most interesting aspects of ancient Greek makeup is that it was used by both men and women and was widely accepted. Although, it is thought that a tanned skin was a sign of poverty while a pale and porcelain complexion was a symbol of prosperity.
For the ancient Chinese, beauty was all about the face. Regardless of dynasty, they favored long and slender eyebrows and delicate rouged cheeks that exuded femininity. They also used a lot of facial ornaments, like small forehead decorations called hua dian and various forms of charcoal (kohl) that made the eyes look bigger. The ancient Chinese would also use different colors of motherwort powder to cover spots and smooth out skin.
Although the global cosmetics industry is huge today, ancient makeup has received relatively little attention in archaeological research. This is largely due to the fact that it’s difficult to study the chemical composition of historical cosmetics residue from archaeological sites, since they were often mixed with other substances such as medicinal incense or beads. However, physico-chemical techniques such as Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and Raman spectroscopy (Ribechini et al. 2011) have been increasingly employed to analyze such residues and gain insight into the history of ancient cosmetics.
The ancient Chinese’s early cosmetic industry might have started during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 bce) but remains very obscure. It is suggested that they developed a widely spread cosmetics industry to support cultural values of grooming and appearance but to this day no evidence of its origin has been found (Schafer 1956).
Fortunately, Wang was able to discover the ingredients for some ancient cosmetics through her work. For example, she was able to recreate the infamous plum blossom makeup from an accidental mark that a princess of the Song Dynasty left on her face when a petal fell on her head and couldn’t be washed off for three days. The result is a soft, peach-like color that resembles a natural blush.
As trends in the 21st century shift faster and more unpredictably than ever before, some people have been turning to older—even ancient—beauty practices to get a leg up on the competition. This trend isn’t just limited to the West; influencers, designers, and other influential figures in China have been researching old beauty traditions and incorporating them into their current styles. The future looks bright for reconnection to the cultural past!